American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Nepal, Dhaulagiri Himal, Mount Everest, Altitude Survey

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Mount Everest, Altitude Survey. In the spring of 1999, Boston’s Museum of Science, the National Geographic Society and a number of very generous individual donors fielded a scientific expedition to Mount Everest, with five basic objectives.

To determine, as accurately as possible, the precise altitude of the summit of Mount Everest, using the latest Trimble 4800 Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) Receivers.

To coordinate every detail of this GPS work with both the United States’ National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and China’s National Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, as a new altitude for Mount Everest is a matter of international interest.

To create a special geological collection (as planned by Dr. Kip Hodges of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) as an important part of the Mount Everest Geologic Map Project, on which he and Dr. Michael Searle of Oxford University have already made significant progress.

To set up weather-monitoring equipment on bedrock at Everest’s 7891-meter (25,889') South Col, Camp II and Base Camp for MIT’s Media Laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Michael Hawley.

Jeff and Kellie Rhoads were to climb with our party and make as complete as possible a film of what was done and how. This was not in any way related to our budget, and all of the expenses and profits related to their work were a gamble taken by American Adventure Productions. This arrangement made it possible for us, at no cost, to get a video record of exactly what our team accomplished in the field.

In order to secure a very precise new altitude for Mount Everest’s summit, as well as to have a good headquarters from which all of this work would be well coordinated, we set up Base Camp in early April at an altitude of 17,600 feet. Our team had reliable, constant communication by radiotelephone with the “outside world” as well as with our teams above on the mountain. David Mencin of Boulder, Colorado, was in charge of this coordination. Charles Corfield of Palo Alto, California, was science manager of the expedition.

On May 3, the leader of our party, Pete Athans, his assistant guide, Bill Crouse, and five experienced Sherpas reached our South Col camp with a plan to spend one full day there before moving up to the summit. These Sherpas were Chewang Nima, Phu Tashi, Dorje, Gyalgen and Nga Temba. May 4 was spent setting up a good camp and operating one of our Trimble 4800 GPS receivers at this critical location for at least 48 hours.

With excellent weather, they all reached the summit of Mount Everest at 10 a.m. on May 5. The conditions there were just about as perfect as we could have prayed for: -26°F, cloudless skies and a light breeze. The GPS Receiver was planted firmly in the summit snow at10:13 a.m. and run continuously until 11:09 a.m. for a total of 56 minutes.

Pete and Bill took lots of pictures and carefully read the Kollsman altimeter, which was graciously loaned to us by Lou Bissoni. They also collected two tiny samples of ancient limestone from a small ledge just south of the top, stone that none of them had ever seen before. The same furious west-southwest winter gales that had revealed George Mallory’s body on the other side of the peak had swept this lofty ledge clear, too, revealing very, very old limestone from the Ordovician period. This “new” ledge is certainly the highest bedrock anywhere in the world!

During their descent, Pete Athans replaced the GPS station bolt at Bishop Ledge (just below the summit) with a new, permanent one. Otherwise, the descent back to Base Camp was routine, and they carried with them the two precious GPS receivers.

I take pleasure in reporting the final results of our GPS data, now thoroughly coordinated with China, Nepal, India and the United States’ NIMA. The newly-established altitude for Mount Everest is 29,035 feet (8850m).

Bradford Washburn

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